Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The underestimated comma

Proper comma use is the most underestimated way to clearer writing. While the effects are subtle, they are also cumulative, so most readers will be unaware of the reason the well-punctuated document is clearer. They probably also lack a model against which to compare, as optimally punctuated reading matter is rare.

One reason the comma is unappreciated is that many educated persons see grammar and punctuation as a matter of learning mindless rules. Schoolchildren are usually told to use correct grammar to avoid appearing uneducated. But rules of punctuation are well tailored to carve sentences into units useful to their comprehension.

Another reason the comma is unappreciated comes from the inconclusive notion that commas represent pauses when text is spoken. Readers and writers often decide comma use is either easy or subjective. Although commas only occur where a speaker pauses, not every pause should receive a comma. Pauses are so varied in form and use in speech that you sometimes won't hear commas unless you know what to listen for.

A third reason for underestimating the comma is that everyone knows how to use the comma passably, although few use it well. An activity anyone can accomplish is a good recipe for the under-appreciation of any skill. Lawyers, for example, are under-appreciated because, as self-representation demonstrates, most educated persons can do the work of lawyers well enough even to stand a chance of prevailing.

A fourth reason that commas are unappreciated is the vague popular idea that good writing is conversational. Some qualities of conversational speech make for readable writing, but limiting what a writer can accomplish to what sounds good when spoken doesn't exploit the advantages of written communication, which, aided by punctuation, can express sentences of greater complexity than can bear overt speech.

Few lawyers want to spend time refining their understanding of the comma, but a professional ghostwriter should. You may doubt the practical significance of placing commas in the right places and only there. Some will think the task easy; others, inconsequential. But even the best legal writers suffer from comma errors, whose avoidance would improve clarity. One of the greatest legal writers was Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Consider this subtle comma error, of a kind occurring often in his work. In The Common Law (1881), p. 164, Justice Holmes writes this superficially unobjectionable sentence:
It is neither a harm nor a wrong to abstain from delivering a bale of wool at a certain time and place, unless a binding promise has been made so to deliver it, and then it is a wrong only to the promisee.
The comma before "unless" is incorrect because the clause "unless a binding promise has been made so to deliver it" is restrictive. Holmes's comma placement conveys that abstaining from the delivery is never a harm and thus prepares the reader to understand the following clause to tell why, when the clause states the conditions under which the abstention is injurious. These subliminally perceived contradictions distract and confuse the reader.

The error of Justice Holmes was an error of overpunctuation. The
superiority of heavy punctuation in legal writing doesn't mean errors of overpunctuation aren't common; they are much more common than the reverse, since the defect of underpunctuation often falls short of error. If Justice Holmes could err, perhaps I can overcome embarrassment to reveal an error of mine, appearing in my other blog. You judge whether it's more egregious than Justice Holmes's.
The court should not allow the State Bar to exploit its manipulative discussions with the Supreme Court Clerk's Office, or its special relationship with the Supreme Court itself, to gain an unfair advantage.
The comma preceding "or" mistakenly treats "or its special relationship with the Supreme Court itself" as parenthetical.
[See also, "Mysteries of the Comma."]

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